High on the list of Jewish martyr stories still retold, or at least alluded to, every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the terrible medieval tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.
For refusing to appear before the Bishop of Regensburg, who had requested that Amnon become a Christian, he had his limbs hacked off. What was left of him was arrayed alongside his severed parts and returned home in time for Rosh Hashana.
As the hazan reached the climax of services that day, Amnon interrupted with a beautiful liturgical poem, and was promptly transported to his heavenly abode. Three days later he appeared to the saintly Rabbi Kalonymos to teach him the poem and instruct him to spread it everywhere.
That poem, the Un’taneh Tokef, now is a centerpiece of the High Holy Days liturgy.
So goes the story, which is still told annually in many a synagogue before Un’taneh Tokef and its two-fold message: First, that “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…who by earthquake, who by plague [and so forth]”; but second, that “penitence, prayer, and charity” can somehow alleviate the hardship of the decree.
Who by Fire, Who by Water chronicles the fascinating controversy.
The problem with the story is that it is hardly a message that inaugurates a new year with spiritual promise. Besides, it is pure fiction; there never was a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “aMNoN” is a rearrangement of the letters in the Hebrew Ne’eMaN, “faithful.”
The poem probably was composed as early as the fifth or sixth century by a Byzantine Jewish genius named Yannai, who symbolized anything but Jewish martyrdom in the face of inhuman persecution.
Un’taneh Tokef illustrates classic liturgical poetry at its best, an abundance of biblical and rabbinic allusions wed to clever Hebrew wordplay and alliterative excellence.
But what about the poem’s troubling message? While the first half of Who by Fire, Who by Water provides the truly stunning story behind the myth and the poem (alongside an annotated translation of both), the second half elicits commentaries from some 40 thoughtful contributors who tell us how they handle the poem’s message.
Here, arguing over the poem’s merits, are rabbis and laypeople; men and women from all denominations of Jewish life (artists, writers, scholars, teachers, musicians); from around the world and spanning generations. Prayer book editors from Europe and North America wrangle over whether to include it, fudge its message, or trash it.
Israeli professor Dalia Marx recalls how the poem emerged anew as a symbol of Israelis dying in the Yom Kippur War of her youth.
“Who shall live and who shall die? The answer is ‘Me!’” concludes Rabbi Edward Feinstein, in his insistence that Un’taneh Tokef speaks directly to our most cherished illusion — that we are in charge of our fate, when in fact we are painfully out of control.
Perhaps the poem’s real climactic claim is that even though “our origin is dust and our end is dust,” we yet carry God’s name in our very being.
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig writes: “We may write books, create foundations, generate ideas, found, or revitalize synagogues that will nurture generations long after we have died.”
Both the poem’s authorship and its message matter profoundly. Which Jewish type we emphasize, Amnon the martyr or Yannai the poet, will determine what Judaism we hand to the next generation.